Alex graduated with a Bsc (Hons I) in Molecular and Cellular Biology from UNSW in 1995. After obtaining his PhD in 2003 he undertook postdoctoral training with Nobel laureate J. Michael Bishop at the University of California, San Francisco, supported by a CJ Martin Travelling Fellowship from the NHMRC.
In 2008 Alex established the Tumour Progression Laboratory in the Garvan Institute and in 2012 was appointed co-Head of the Breast Translational Oncology Program in the newly commissioned Kinghorn Cancer Centre. Alex is an Associate Professor at UNSW and an NHMRC Senior Research Fellow.
Alex is the convenor of the Lorne Cancer Conference, Australia’s pre-eminent multi-disciplinary cancer research conference & the Australian Translational Breast & Prostate Cancer Symposium. He serves on the Cancer Research Committee of the Cancer Council NSW.
The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity
Associate Professor Deborah Williamson is a Clinical Microbiologist and Deputy Director of the Microbiological Diagnostic Unit Public Health Laboratory (MDU PHL). She is also a Laboratory Head in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Deborah is involved in the delivery of specialist public health laboratory services, and in the diagnosis and surveillance of communicable diseases. Her research interests include the molecular epidemiology and pathogenesis of infections caused by antimicrobial resistant pathogens, and the translation of genomic technologies to questions of public health importance.
Dr Jose Polo encourages us to think of the human genome as a library. As an epigeneticist, expert in the way changes occur in our genes beyond the basic structure of DNA, Jose believes who we are is dependent on how the smallest, most fundamental pieces of our biology are able to open and close the great books of our genetic library.
The field of epigenetics is a complex one, rooted in the mechanisms and structures of gene expression deep within our body’s cells. To the uninitiated this world can seem inaccessible, and so Jose has become accustomed to explaining just what his work entails, and how its real-world applications could shape the future of medical science.
At its most fundamental, Jose’s work is driven by a desire to identify what really makes a cell a cell.
While different cells of the body have the potential to make different organs, the genomes, a catalogue of our hereditary information encoded as DNA are exactly the same.
‘How is the cell of the skin different to the cell of the heart?” Jose says.
“The answer is not the genome, which is common throughout the body, but the genes that are expressed. There is no such thing as naked DNA, it is inside a nucleus and wrapped around nucleosomes and forming different complexes with proteins giving rise to the chromatin. This packaging determines the transcription or ‘readability’ of the genes.
Through this concept of a gene’s readability Jose’s interpretation of the genome as a library takes shape.
‘Both skin cells and heart cells have the same library – what is different are the books that can be read,” Jose says.
“If each book is a gene, then whatever book is open is going to be transcribed. So if the keratinocyte (skin cells) books are open they get read and the cell become a keratinocyte,’ Jose says.
Jose’s work involves studying how these genetic books are opened and closed. He believes it is this process that makes us what we are – and what gives the cell its identity. And it this belief that offers a new direction for medical science.
Jose’s desire to pursue this new line of thinking led him to leave his native Argentina for the US to do his PhD at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Under the supervision of Dr. Ari Melnick, he investigated how a family of transcription factors inhibit the reading of certain genes and led to the development of an anti-lymphoma agent. This is now going to clinical trials to be developed into a therapeutic.
He then was recruited to the group of Konrad Hochedlinger at Harvard University to work in the epigenetic and cellular mechanisms that govern reprogramming of adults cells into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.
His worked attracted the interest of the Monash community in Australia and he is currently group leader in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology. Further developing his genetic ideas into the realm of stem cell science, Jose is exploring the possibilities that will come out of the department’s collaborative environment. He has already planned collaborations with researchers within the centre, as well as at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute, CSIRO, the University of Michigan and Cornell University.
Lecturer, Head, Plant Ecological Genomics Research Group
Kay has a diversity of research interests that generally focus on plant evolution in human altered environments. She is particularly interested in weedy and invasive plants and uses these species to investigate the genetic basis of rapid evolutionary change. Her research also includes adaptation to climate change, crop evolution as well as the evolution of plant sexual systems.
Climates encountered by wide-ranging species can vary enormously, from frigid arctic temperatures to seasonally hot and dry Mediterranean climates to suffocating tropical humidity. Populations of a species can evolve through natural selection to optimize their traits in response to these different environments in a process called local adaptation. Using genomic and experimental studies of invasive plants and foundation species, our lab seeks to identify the genes underlying such adaptive differences and to understand the constraints and biases that may impact the genetic basis of adaptation. From slowing the evolution of herbicide resistance to speeding up adaptation to climate change, our ability to manage the process of local adaptation will be enhanced by a better understanding of how often the same adaptive solutions arise and the genetic mechanisms that underlie them.
Associate Professor Mark Cowley is a bioinformatician whose research is focused on developing innovative computational approaches to improve health outcomes. Mark joined Children’s Cancer Institute in 2018 to establish a new computational biology group, bringing his bioinformatics expertise to the Zero Childhood Cancer personalised medicine program as well as a number of other research programs at the Institute.
Best-known for his translational bioinformatics work, Mark previously worked with the Australian Pancreatic Cancer Initiative, and the Kinghorn Centre for Clinical Genomics at the Garvan Institute. Here, he led the development of clinical-grade whole genome analysis, which has now been commercialised, and developed into one of the first whole-genome-sequencing-based pathology tests in the world. He was also instrumental in leading the development of the computational biology underpinning the now-national MoST program, Australia’s largest precision medicine trial for adults with rare cancer.
Mark and his group are conducting genome analysis as part of the Zero Childhood Cancer clinical trial, analysing the tumours of participating children to look for mutations that may provide important clues about causes and appropriate treatments. Longer term, Mark aims to use the data generated from these analyses to answer larger questions about cancers and a range of other diseases. He is also exploring the impact of ‘non-coding mutations’ of children with cancer – mutations that occur in parts of the genome that don’t encode genes yet are thought to be important in other ways.
‘Precision medicine is the context of my work,’ Mark explains. ‘The aim is to improve outcomes for patients by understanding the molecular drivers of their tumours. We can use this data to improve outcomes in patients today, through making better treatment recommendations, as well as long-term to better understand cancer.’
Professor Melissa Little, BSc PhD GAICD, FAAHMS, FAA is the Theme Director of Cell Biology at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia. She is internationally recognised for her work on the systems biology of kidney development. For more than two decades, her work has investigated the molecular and cellular basis of kidney development and disease. This fundamental research has underpinned her pioneering studies into potential regenerative therapies for kidney disease. As a result, her team have developed approaches for directing the differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells to human kidney organoids. Her group are applying this knowledge to disease modelling, drug screening, cell therapy and tissue engineering.
Professor Little is an NHMRC Senior Principal Research Fellow at MCRI, Program Leader of Stem Cells Australia and Professor, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, University of Melbourne. Melissa is also President of the Australasian Society for Stem Cell Research, Vice-President of the Board of ISSCR, and immediate past President of ASSCR. A Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences, Professor Little’s work has been recognised by many awards, including the GlaxoSmithKline Award for Research Excellence (2005), AAS Gottschalk Medal in Medical Sciences (2004), Eisenhower Fellowship (2006), ANZSCDB Presidents Medal (2015), Boerhaave Professorship, Leiden University (2015), UNSW Eureka Prize (2016) and the NHMRC Elizabeth Blackburn Fellowship Biomedical (2018), Honorary Doctorate, Leiden University (2019) and the prestigious Alfred Newton Richards Award (2019).
Professor Vijay Dhanasekaran completed his PhD in Microbial Evolution and Systematics (2005) at the Department of Ecology and Biodiversity, The University of Hong Kong, and then spent 4 years doing post-doctoral research at the State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases at HKU. He moved to Singapore in 2010 to take up a Faculty position in the Program of Emerging Infectious Diseases at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School. In 2016, he moved to Melbourne to lead the Disease Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics at the Department of Microbiology, Biomedicine Discovery Institute, Monash University, Australia. where they conduct genomic surveillance and phylogenetic analysis to understand the factors that affect pathogen diversity in humans and animals. The overarching goal of his laboratory is studying the factors that shape the emergence, evolution, and incidence of rapidly evolving viral pathogens such as influenza. They conduct disease surveillance in animals and humans, employ molecular virology, genomics and experimental evolution experiments in evolutionary biology and epidemiology.